As The Valley Reporter goes to press on Wednesday, May 13, the Harwood Unified Union School District (HUUSD) Board is meeting to discuss the school budget. Since the Vermont Legislature has yet to make a decision on allowing school districts without approved budgets to borrow an amount equal to their fiscal year (FY) 2020 spending levels, the board will discuss four possible budget options.
The first budget option is to approve a budget on May 13, warning that budget on May 20 and holding a public vote on June 9, encouraging the community to vote via absentee ballot ahead of time. The second option is the same as above, except instead of holding an in-person election on June 9, all voters would be required to vote via absentee ballot.
The third option is to approve a budget on May 13 that reflects the pending budget imposition from the Legislature and to wait until the Legislature approves the bill that would impose budgets on budgetless school districts instead of holding a public vote.
Finally, the board could choose one of the first two options and then go with the Legislature’s budget if the district’s budget vote were to fail.
In a leadership report, board chair Caitlin Hollister and vice chair Torrey Smith said their main goal is to determine, first, which of the four options is of greatest interest to the board and, finally, to make and approve a plan for carrying it out.
At a May 6 meeting the HUUSD Board eliminated two budget options. The first, which the board now refers to as budget C, had been considered before the Legislature proposed a bill to impose budgets on budgetless school districts. It’s the no-restrictions-on-IDC budget. This budget saves $300,000 while allowing staff additions to accommodate IDC, the policy that allows students to transfer to other schools in the district.
The board also voted to eliminate budget F, a budget that considers a possible outcome of a legislative vote. This budget describes the outcome of a bill that, if passed, would allow budgetless school districts to spend their FY20 budget amounts plus a 4% inflation factor. For the HUUSD, total expenditures for this budget add up to $41,158,899.
Capping education spending during this time of economic hardship is a priority for the board, which then voted to move forward only draft budgets with education spending that does not exceed $32,474,752. Where does this number come from? It’s the total education spending from the HUUSD’s FY2020 budget, the amount that the district would be able to spend if the Vermont Legislature passed the pending bill.
But that $32,474,752 sum does not represent the total budget. The total budget presented would be $39,859,909 (representing education spending plus revenues) and is $87,567 higher than the $39,772,342 budget that was voted down at Town Meeting in March.
The weighted vote to cap education spending at $32,474,752 passed 71.75% to 0%, with 10 board members voting in favor of the cap and three board members abstaining from the vote altogether.
However, accepting this number as the budget cap does not imply that the school board will jump on the Legislature’s imposed budget instead of holding a budget vote. In fact, board members were divided in their options regarding whether the board should accept the Vermont Legislature’s offer when it comes out, or go to voters for a second election using mail-in ballots.
“If we go through the budget process again, it will be contentious and divisive,” said board member Jeremy Tretiak, Waitsfield. Tretiak suggested that the board accept the Vermont Legislature’s offer, so the board could take the time to focus on supporting educators instead. “Let’s be done with FY21 and take what the state will give us.”
On the other side of the spectrum, board member Lisa Mason, Moretown, spoke in favor of holding a vote. “Having the option of having mail-in voting would be a really great opportunity,” said Mason. “We’d be getting some really valuable information about what our voters want for the upcoming year.” Mason added that it’s important to reach out to the community and engage voters. “My inclination is always to engage more.”
Alexandra Thomsen, Waterbury, was concerned that even mail-in ballots would pose a public health risk to those involved in the vote tallying process. “My biggest concern is the health of town clerks,” said Thomsen. “To be exposing people unnecessarily doesn’t make sense.”
Board chair Caitlin Hollister informed the board that hosting a mail-in election would cost roughly $12,000 in postage. Despite this cost, and the health risks mentioned by Thomsen, many board members were adamant that they wanted to hear from voters.
“It’s very important to hear local voices. I am not comfortable with deferring the responsibility of our voters,” said Theresa Membrino, Fayston. “If we put out a budget and it fails, we can default to the base plan. That’s the state’s intent: to be the default, not to be the first choice.”
When board chair Caitlin Hollister took an informal survey of who would prefer to hold a vote and who would prefer to accept the Vermont Legislature’s offer, results were split. Seven board members said they would accept the offer, five board members said they would prefer to hold a vote, and one board member passed.